Howth Castle and Environs

North Dublin’s Sandy Shore – 9

From Raheny, Watermill Road leads to the Bull Island causeway and on via Bayside and Sutton, to Howth on the peninsula that brackets the north of Dublin Bay. Alternatively, you can take the Dart. The Dartline branches at Howth junction; the western branch following the Belfast line as far as Malahide, while the eastern terminates in Howth.

The Northside Dartline is not so scenic as the Southside, passing through unremarkable suburbs between Clontarf and Bayside, but there are stories there too. The stop after Raheny is Kilbarrack, immortalised as Barrytown in Roddy Doyle’s trilogy: The Commitments, the Snapper and The Van. The Commitments was written largely in dialogue heavily spiced with f-words. The cinema version, written by Ian Le Fresnais, also responsible for the Likely Lads, kept faithfully to the book. This made it difficult to hear as Irish audiences collapse into helpless laughter at the dropping of f bombs, so drowning out subsequent dialogue. Doyle went on to win the Booker Prize for his fourth book, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha; also set hereabouts, in a standalone coming of age story.

Howth was remote enough for us to take a family holiday there in the early sixties. We didn’t have a car then, few families did, and public transport was nowhere near as frequent as now. A bus into town and a train to Howth was something of an odyssey. These days the Dart whistles around the bay every fifteen minutes or so, and the journey from Bray to Howth takes under an hour and a half. The first tram service to Howth was in 1873. From Clontarf it connected to Howth Rail station and the Summit. Irish coach builder, John Stephenson, is credited with inventing the tram in New York in the 1830s. A horse drawn vehicle then, but running on rails made it easier for the horse and increased passenger capacity. Dublin’s first trams were double deckers, with the upper deck open to the sky.

Early electric tramways used street level current collection which was dangerous. The overhead trolley made city electric trams feasible. Haddington Road to Dalkey was the first in Dublin in 1896 followed by Dollymount to Fairview, in 1897. Dublin Corporation objected to electric trams going through the city; as they still object to such diverse things as high buildings, late night opening and Garth Brooks. Boss of the Dublin United Tramways company, William Martin Murphy, pushed objections aside, and by the end of the century, electric trams traversed the city powered by a huge power station in Ringsend. The first electric tram to Howth was in 1900. On May 31st, 1959, the tram took its final bow. This was the last tram to run in Ireland until LUAS reintroduced the concept in the early twenty first century.

I visited Howth by Dart on the hottest day of all time. Temperatures in Phoenix Park were measured at thirty three degrees. I reckon they were a few degrees cooler in Bray and Howth, mid twenties, say, which is very pleasant. In truth, for now, it remains the second hottest day of all time. On 26th June, 1887, a hundred and thirty five years ago, a temperature of 33.3C was recorded at Kilkenny Castle. However, climate activists are determined this abberation, as they see it, must be written off, Apparently, if observations don’t support the theory, change the observation. Either way, temperatures in the thirties are very unusual in Ireland.

The Dart was filling up with daytrippers at Connolly, and by Howth Junction was sardine packed. It emptied at Sutton, the strand there being the destination of youngsters eager to experience the scarce joys of summer in the temperate zone. So eager, they dropped everything they were carrying before leaving the carriege. I was practically alone coming in to Howth where I managed to wade through the debris to the door and alight. 

Picture yourself on a train in a station

With plasticine porters with looking glass ties

Suddenly someone is there at the turnstile

The girl with the kaleidoscope eyes

Blinking into the sunlight at the station, some tumbleweed blowing past the entrance, it was two short flights of steps down to the Bloody Stream. This is a traditional Irish Bar with a restaurant serving seafood and other popular mains. There’s a mediterranean style covered terrace to the side, a sun terrace in front and the cosy interior has open fires and live music in the evenings. The sunken terrace is a pleasant place to bask and sip a cool beer. A father and son nearby discuss the weather, an age old Irish topic. Do you think you can stand this heat, da? the son asks with some irony. The elderly gent is of the opinion that media coverage is more science fiction than science. All agree that the ill effects of global warming are best kept at bay by frequent stops for cool beer. 

The daunting name of the premises is historically based. In 1177, a Norman force under John De Courcey and led by Amory Tristram took Howth from the Danes at the Battle of Evora Bridge. Beneath the bridge the stream ran red with blood and was so named, passing it on to the pub under which it now flows. The heyday of the Danes in Ireland peaked in the tenth century, but even after the defeat at Clontarf, they ruled Dublin for a further century and a half until the arrival of their cousins, the Normans. The Normans defeated the Vikings at Waterford, Wexford and Dublin, but a force held out in Howth for a while. After the battle Tristram took the name De St Lawrence, the battle taking place on the saint’s feast day, and was granted the land and lordship of Howth. His original castle, a wooden structure, was on higher ground further east, but he later established his stronghold west of the station.

It’s a short walk along the main road from the Bloody Stream to the entrance to Howth Castle. First, some yards east of the entrance, St Mary’s church stands on its small promintory. This is the parish church for the Church of Ireland community of Howth. It was designed by JE Rogers in 1860 and is distinguished by an unusual spire which itself seems to grow from an older tower. The interior boasts a rich veriety of stained glass, including work by Evie Hone.

The stone built castle dates from the fifteenth century, with its keep and Gate tower. There’s a Restoration era tower from the 1660s and the complex was significally made over in 1738. Finally, a number of features were added by. Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1911 with a new tower housing the library, a loggia and a sunken garden.

Grace O’Malley stars in a well known incident. In 1576, putting in to Howth, she was confident of receiving the hospitality of the lord, but he, being at supper with his wife, barred the gates against her. Grace was furious, as in her own lands out west, the lord it was honourbound to offer hospitality to the traveller. The next day, the Earl’s grandson and heir, tricked into visiting Grace’s ship, was kidnapped and whisked off to Connaught. One can only imagine the teenager’s response to finding himself in the wilds of the west as prisoner of the notorious pirate queen. “It was sick, Dude!” or words to that effect. In response, the lord guaranteed to set an extra place at dinner table for the unexpected guest, a tradition upheld for four hundred and fifty years. Also, the gates to his Deer Park estate were to remain open to the public. As they are.

Adjacent to Howth Castle is the National Transport Museum. Run by volunteers, it features an interesting collection of various means of transport including a restored Hill of Howth Tram. Closed when I visited, its future is nebulous. Tetrarch Capital and Michael J Wright (The Bloody Stream) recently acquired the estate from the Gaisford St Lawrence family with plans to develop the property for tourism and retail with a luxury hotel and some resedential development.

The walk uphill past the castle takes me through mature woodland which opens onto startling greenery. Within the park, rhododendron gardens make for a spectacular summer walk. Planted in 1835, there are over two hundred species of rhododendron. Through April and May they provide an overwhelming kaleidoscope of colour and fragrance. Popular with us cosmic heads in the 70s, forming a shimmering background to many a pointless and swaying walk in the eternal summers of psychedelia.

In contrast, Deer Park golf course also adorns the flanks of the headland, with a modern bar in the clubhouse buildings. Having lost a lot of liquid on my walk, it being the hottest day of all time, I thought a few moments rest with cold liquid refreshment was in order. The Cafe Bar boasts a large and, surprisingly, deserted terrace. There are spectacular views over the golf course to the isthmus and North Dublin coast beyond. Behind, the serene blue sky is framed by the craggy summit of Howth Head. Heaven.

Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain

Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies

Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers

That grow so incredibly high

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

The Beatles, from their 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Although it has long been seen as LSD induced, even the title, Lennon was inspired by his young son’s drawing of a schoolfriend, Lucy O’Donnell. Lennon also drew on the imagery of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. 

Winter in Connemara

It’s been at least two years since I’ve been out of my native locale, Ireland’s exotic east coast. No better place, I know; still a change of scenery is good for the soul. So, as November surrendered, M and I, packed our gear into the chariot and headed way out west for a few days in Leenane, County Galway.

Crossing the Shannon, you can feel the fabric of the country shift. Athlone is downriver, the huddle of spires and domes sketched in the mist, a crown shimmering above the fading urbanity we are leaving behind.The words wild and west go well together, and hurtling along the stony spine of Roscommon, you begin to understand why. And the rain lives here.

Past Galway City and Oughterard, the mountains don’t gradually appear, but jump us from out of the drizzle, becoming somehow all the more majestic for it. The light of evening has already extinguished as we snake down the steep sides of Killary Harbour and into Leenane. Our hotel, Leenane Lodge lies a mile or so to the west, on the Galway side of the water. Nestled into the cliff face it beams a comforting glow across the slate waters of Killary Harbour.

Killary Harbour, described as Ireland’s largest fjord, or even Ireland’s only fjord, is ten miles long and up to a hundred and fifty feet deep. Killary means narrow inlet as Gaeilge. It was carved out of the mountains of Connemara during the last ice age over ten thousand years ago. It marks a spectacular border between two of Connaught’s counties, Mayo to the north, and Galway on the south. From our room we can look across the fjord in the morning at the Mweelrea range and Ben Gorm, the blue mountain. In fact Ben Gorm shifts through many colours in the shifting prism of the day, some of them even blue. Behind us are the Maamturk Mountains, and further west the exuberant spectacle of the Twelve Bens. Connemara is a name given to much of western Galway. It is a Gaeltacht, an Irish speaking area, the largest such in the country with twenty five thousand Irish speakers out of a population of just over thirty thousand. Con denotes the local Tuatha, or tribe, and na mara means of the sea.

The hotel dates back to the late eighteenth century when it opened as a coach inn. We had a room with a view, of course, and a little balcony perched above the fjord. As night fell, early enough with the encroaching mountains, it was time for the traditional December aperitif, a pint of Guinness, enjoyed in the cosy bar centred on a blazing turf fire. One could eat there, or adjourn to the adjacent restaurant. We chose the former, why change a winning team? I chose Chicken Ballotine on day one, rolled with a pudding and bacon stuffing, with potato cake and mushroom sauce. I had to be rolled out to the lobby myself afterwards. Over the next few days I moved on through the menu, which was quite a journey, one I hope to do again. There was a large residents lounge on the other side of the lobby, with well fed guests, and a well fed fire, and folk and ballad entertainment there later in the evening.

We awake to sunshine on the fjord, and good prospects for exploration and mountain gazing, one of my favourite pursuits. After a hearty breakfast, we take a walk on the Wild Atlantic Way which passes outside the hotel door. The route travels along the road for a bit, passing a tiny picturesque harbour with a trio of moored boats. About a quarter mile on a rough path rises to our left with a gradual climb to give a glorious elevated view of the fjord below. We climb a style by a singing gate, the wind playing ghostly Irish airs through its rusted bars, I swear! As we get a clear view of Mweelrea and the fjord’s mouth off to the northwest, the sky’s expression shifts again and a scowling dark veil makes towards us. So, we return whence we came, the gate now giving a medley of jigs and reels, making the road as the rain hits. And just as quickly, it’s gone again. Winter sun, soothes the blue waters of the fjord, and Ben Gorm tries on a new range of colours.

For the afternoon we drive towards Letterfrack. The road rises out of Killary into high peatland, framed by the Maamturks and the fabulous peaks of the Twelve Bens. There’s a right turn where we follow a coastal route through Tully Cross and Renvyle. Renvyle is a finger pointing into the angry sea. The landscape is alive with gulls, gannets, wind and waves. Sailing out on its promontory is the stark ruin of Renvyle Castle, built by the Joyce clan in the thirteenth century. Neighbouring clan, the O’Flaherties, captured it after massacring guests at a Joyce wedding. A more successful wedding in 1546 saw chieftain Donal O’Flaherty marry pirate queen Grace O’Malley. Grace inadvertently put a hole in her new home when her ship set off its canon in salute while moored offshore. After Donal’s murder two decades later, Grace was forced to leave the castle and return to Mayo. During the Spanish Armada in 1588, the Falco Blanco with a hundred men aboard was wrecked on the nearby reef. Survivors were held in the castle before being handed over to the English authorities. Up to three hundred Spanish survivors were executed in Galway City. After more than three centuries of excitement, Oliver Cromwell ordered destruction of the castle in 1650s and the O’Flaherties land was confiscated.

We follow the coastal road around to Letterfrack. There’s a visitor centre there, but I’m not sure it’s prepared for our visit. These are, after all, strange days. We park at the church and visit the Monastery Hostel which holds memories, some with the spirit of summers of love. We potter around a bit and share some words with the friendly proprietor. Below the church, the village forms, something of a chimera in a cold oasis. There’s a couple of bars, one with encouraging signs for traditional cigarettes. It looks cosy within, and I file it in my memory box.

We complete our loop by way of Kylemore Abbey. The abbey is home to Benedictine nuns who fled Belgium in the Great War. They came here in 1920 and set up house in Kylemore Castle, as it was then known. The castle was built fifty years earlier by English couple Mitchell and Margaret Henry who fell in love with the area when honeymooning here some decades before. One can see why. The gothic creation perfectly compliments the view, its reflection in the facing lake an illustration from a medieval romance.

The nuns established a school for girls which closed ten years ago. It now hosts academic and retreat programmes in partnership with Notre Dame University of Indiana, USA. You can visit the demesne, including parts of the abbey, its gothic church, family mausoleum and the surrounding walled Victorian Gardens between March and October with restricted access in winter.

Another trip down memory lane for us the next day. Up, to be precise, and rather a steep lane at that. We return to Letterfrack for our assault on Diamond Hill. Again, the visitor centre carpark confounds us, but we park in the forecourt anyway. Diamond Hill is an isolated peak of the Twelve Bens. Rising to one and a half thousand feet, it resembles the Great Sugarloaf behind my home in Bray, in size, shape and material. Its glittering quartzite gives it the name. The path is well maintained, with boardwalk and stone guarding against erosion. A path well travelled, but through such a green ocean of space that the sense of isolation, especially in the bleak mid winter, is profound.

We continue on to Clifden for refreshments. Clifden is the largest town in Connemara with a population of one and a half thousand. It seems a lot more, especially in season. There are a dozen pubs, plenty of cafes, shops and hotels. Clifden evolved in the early nineteenth century and knew truly interesting times in the early twentieth. In 1905 Guiglielmo Marconi built his first transatlantic wireless telegraphy station nearby. The first service connecting Europe to North America opened in October 1907. A railway was constructed to convey equipment, workers and visitors across the bog to the station. It carried celebrity aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown in 1919 after their sixteen hour flight from Newfoundland crashlanded in the bog nearby. It was the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic and ushered in the Air Age.

I get no kick in a plane
Flying too high with some guy in the sky
Is my idea of nothing to do
But I get a kick out of you

A statue of the aerodynamic duo stands in the town centre, across the road from the hotel bearing their name. The Marconi station was destroyed by republican irregulars during the Civil War and operations were transferred to Wales, and the railway subsequently obliterated.

We return in murky rain by way of Lough Inagh, the lake flooding the floor of a beautiful and lonesome valley. At its heart is Lough Inagh Lodge, a fine, remote hotel in the old fashioned way. It dates from 1880, when it was built as a fishing lodge. It was redeveloped by the O’Connor family as modern boutique hotel. I stayed here some dozen years back, on a midweek course in watercolour painting. I have always been a painter, but back then I was sadly lapsed, and the course reawakened my interest in painting. The scenery of Connemara has certainly given me much food for thought. I have a rich store of visuals which I will soon be working on, and a determination to return as soon as I can. Meanwhile, it’s back to the Leenane Hotel, and that winter aperitif.

I get no kick from cocaine
I’m sure that if I took just one more sniff
That would bore me terrifically too
But I get a kick out of brew

I Get a Kick Out of You was written by Cole Porter for the 1934 musical Anything Goes. First sung by Ethel Merman, there have been many covers since, including Frank Sinatra, Gary Shearston and most recently Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett.